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The Friend Gives Life to His Friend

Fifth Sunday of Lent – Year A – April 2, 2017

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Roman Rite
Ex 37: 12-14; Ps 130; Rm 8.8 to 11; Jn 11, 1-45
Ambrosian Rite
Ex 14.15 to 31; Ps 105; Eph 2, 4-10; Jn 11.1 to 53
Sunday of Lazarus
1) Eternal Love gives eternal life:
Last Sunday we meditated over the miracle of the blind man and we saw that Jesus opens our eyes to the complete reality to show us the new and free man in the image of God.
Today, Christ wants to open our eyes to the extreme reality in front of which all close their eyes: death. Our deepest desire is to not die. We have the desire for a full life and for immortality, but we know that it is not possible to save ourselves from the waters of death. In fact, it is as if, in order to get out of an eddy of water that drags us into the sea, each of us tries to lift himself up pulling his own hair. This absurd gesture cannot save us from going deeper into the sea of ​​life. We are saved only by reaching out for the Friend, who, taking our outstretched hand, pulls us out of the vortex of death and places us next to him in the ark of life.
Because of Christ, death is no longer the sad end of our lives. Our exodus does not end in a tomb that only serves to glorify death. Christ, whose death and resurrection is preceded by that of Lazarus, tells us that death is the dramatic passage to enter definitive life. Death is the door that the Cross, as a key, opens to let us in true and everlasting life.
Of course, it is hard to accept the logic of the Cross, which shows us that those who are loved by God are not forsaken by Him. Christ saves us with the Cross and not in spite of the Cross. If we look to the Cross with the eyes of faith, we will understand more and more the “logic” of this instrument of death that has become an instrument of life.
This is indeed a milestone for Christians: if you want to find a meaning in history and in life, you must learn to see the glory of God in the Cross of Christ. It is not possible otherwise. The Cross “opens” the Resurrection, anticipated -in a sense- by that one of Lazarus, which manifests the powerful love of God and shows that the death doesn’t have the last word. Ultimately it is God who is love and who gives life forever.
Those who accept and reciprocates this Love live already an eternal life. In short, the Lord does not give a cheap recipe to avoid death – we are limited, otherwise we would not exist. He wants instead to give us a new way of living our limitations, including the ultimate limit of death. The limit is not the negation of me; the limit is the place where I can enter into relationship with others and with the Other, thanks to which I can have a relationship of love and fellowship that never ends. When one lover says to his beloved “I love you”, he means “do not die”, but knows that this is only a strong desire. When God tells you “I love you”, this “Do not die” is a matter of fact and not a mere wish. With the resurrection of Christ, God, who is love, brings in his Kingdom of life the humanity who was a slave of the kingdom of death.
2) The “sign” of the resurrection of Lazarus.
In light of this premise we understand that the Gospel’s narration tells us about the resurrection of Lazarus not only as a great miracle, but as a “sign” of something else, of the eternal life that we ​​live right now and that death does not interrupt. What does the Lord want to give to us? Not a cheap recipe to avoid death – we are limited, otherwise we would not exist – He wants instead to give a new way of living our limitations, including the ultimate limit. The limit is not the negation of me; the limit is the place where I can get in relationship with the others and with the Other.
Eternal life, which is friendship with God who makes us live a life free from the lien of death because we live right now this relationship with Him and with others, is a life that already goes beyond death. It is an eternal relationship with the endless Love.
The resurrection of Lazarus is the last “sign” of Jesus before facing the passion and overcoming it on the Cross through his Resurrection. We can even say that it is the sign par excellence: Jesus is not just a healer, but “the resurrection and the life” for everyone. It is fair to say that the Resurrection of Christ is the center of the Gospel. The death and resurrection of Lazarus is the anticipated result that helps us to understand the death and resurrection of Jesus. Speaking of Lazarus’ death, Jesus said “it is a sleep”. The difference between sleep and death is that death is the end, sleep instead foreshadows the beginning of a new day. We could say that Christ’s death is not death, it is the prelude for returning to the Father and for giving life to the brothers.
The juxtaposition between Lazarus (that is us) and Jesus is evident in today’s Gospel passage. The story of Lazarus (and therefore us) is intertwined with that of Christ either because Lazarus is abandoned to death or because Jesus is abandoned to the cross and because the resurrection of Lazarus costs Him his life. The leaders of the people decide to kill him because he raised Lazarus. Life for life is for him resurrection at a high price.
The Redeemer, who said that there is no greater love than to lay down his life for the friends (see Jn 15:13), decides to go to his friend.
Jesus really loves[1] Lazarus and yet leaves him to die. Why? Each of us understands that this is the mystery of existence of us humans: a promise of life that seems retracted, a promise of God that seems to contradict itself. A disturbing mystery, although the Gospel tells us that Jesus wept in front of his friend’s death in the same way as he felt at loss in front of the imminence of His death on the Cross. Death, like the Cross, remains something incomprehensible: we are faced with a God who tells us to love one another and yet he seems to abandon us.
The mystery of the existence of man, loved by God and yet left to die, is reflected and magnified in the mystery of the Cross of Jesus. But it resolves if we look at the Cross with the real eyes and faith, because there are different way to see, and we can look to Christ on the Cross in two ways:
– with the look of no faith of those who will stop in front of the scandal, and see in the death of men and in the Cross of Christ the sign of failure.
– with the look of faith, which exceeds the scandal, and sees that the resurrection is shining in the Cross of Jesus and in the death of every man.
This is indeed a milestone for Christians: if you want to find sense in history and in life, we must learn to see the glory of God in the Cross of Christ. It is not possible otherwise. With this precise reference to the mystery of human existence – that is reflected, magnified and resolved in the mystery of the Cross of Christ – we can also conclude our reading. John has managed to turn the episode of Lazarus in a highly theological and even existential discourse, addressed to every person who has the courage to ask the question on the existence.
3) Jesus, resurrection to our lives, now and for eternity
The previous Sunday’s themes converge with successful synthesis in today liturgy: Jesus, the source of living water (third Sunday of Lent with the Gospel of the Samaritan woman) and light (Fourth Sunday of Lent with the Gospel of the blind man), is the one which gives life to those who believe in him (today’s Gospel).
The central theme of the Gospel of Lazarus is that of life. The “sign of life” is the final end of the baptismal journey. The Christian, consecrated in Baptism, lives the same life of Jesus, follows his destiny of death and resurrection, shares his meaning and in his heart has the hope of being able to be with his Lord forever. This life, which began with the baptismal consecration, is eternal and will never die.
How to have the experience of Lazarus today?
First of all by letting Christ, who still says today “Lazarus our friend has fallen asleep; but I go to awaken him”, getting closer to us. Jesus makes a startling revelation and uses the image of sleep to talk about death. The disciples, however, think of sleep as the beginning of a healing that pushes death away. For Jesus, this “back to life” is just a “sign” of the other life, which is divine and given to the believers. The disciples did not suspect anything and still think of the “return” in a life whose end is only postponed.
Secondly, let’s welcome with renewed faith the revelation of the resurrection: “Jesus said to Mary “Your brother will rise again. […] I am the resurrection and the life; who also believes in me shall live. “Jesus, before doing “the sign”, explains it and puts his message in a different level; Jesus is revealing the very meaning of his mission. The life that Jesus gives is not a return to the old life, but the gift of eternal life, the one that does not finish because he is life.
Finally, let’s pray with Christ, who lift up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you because you have heard me. I knew that you always listen, but I said this for the people around me, so that they may believe that you sent me. “Jesus thanks the Father not so much for the resurrection of Lazarus but for his own. With the same feelings of Christ, let’s walk with Him who takes us by the hand to lead us, during these holy days, on the cross and give us the resurrection.
Jesus is offered to God in our place. Death grabs the Son of God thinking to have won over God. But “God has prepared for her a poison pill: death eats it but eats its own end” (Anonymous Cristian writer) 
4) Virginity and resurrection.                                                                                                                  
I’d like to conclude these reflections on the resurrection with some thoughts about the testimony of the consecrated virgins. “The lives of these women are a transfer on Earth of the life of the angels, and a prophecy of life after the resurrection …” Rightly, virginity is called angelic virtues; St. Cyprian writing to the virgins says, “What we will be one day, you have already begun to be. You already possess in this world the glory of the resurrection; you pass through the world without suffering its contagion. If you preserve yourselves virgin and chaste, you are the equals of the angels of God “(De habitu virginum, 22: PL 4, 462). To souls, restless for a purer life or inflamed with the desire of the kingdom of heaven, virginity is offered ‘as a precious gem’, for which a man ‘sold everything he had and bought it’ (Mt 13, 46). “Those who are married and even those who are captives of vice, when they see the virgins, often admire the splendor of their transparent purity “(Pius XII, Sancta Virginitas – Consecrated virginity).
The Fathers of the Church insisted in saying that consecrated virginity is especially the image of the incorruptible God and the face of Christ, the Incarnate Word. For example, St. Ambrose of Milan says that consecrated virginity is the priesthood of chastity, “in which is not difficult to perceive a particular sensitivity of the human spirit, that already in the conditions of temporality seems to anticipate what man will share in the future resurrection “(St. John Paul II, General Audience of 10 March 1982)
Patristic Reading
Saint Augustine of Hyppo
Tractate XLIX.

  1. Among all the miracles wrought by our Lord Jesus Christ, the resurrection of Lazarus holds a foremost place in preaching. But if we consider attentively who did it, our duty is to rejoice rather than to wonder. A man was raised up by Him who made man: for He is the only One of the Father, by whom, as you know, all things were made. And if all things were made by Him, what wonder is it that one was raised by Him, when so many are daily brought into the world by His power? It is a greater deed to create men than to raise them again from the dead. Yet He deigned both to create and to raise again; to create all, to resuscitate some. For though the Lord Jesus did many such acts, yet all of them are not recorded; just as this same St. Jn the evangelist himself testifies, that Christ the Lord both said and did many things that are not recorded;1 but such were chosen for record as seemed to suffice for the salvation of believers. Thou hast just heard that the Lord Jesus raised a dead man to life; and that is sufficient to let thee know that, were He so pleased, He might raise all the dead to life. And, indeed this very work has He reserved in His own hands till the end of the world. For while you have heard that by a great miracle He raised one from the tomb who had been dead four days, “the hour is coming,” as He Himself saith, “in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth.” He raised one who was putrid, and yet in that putrid carcase there was still the form of limbs; but at the last day He will by a word reconstitute ashes into human flesh. But it was needful then to do only some such deeds, that we, receiving them as tokens of His power, may put our trust in Him, and be preparing for that resurrection which shall be to life and not to judgment. So, indeed, He saith, “The hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear His voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.”2
  1. We have, however, read in the Gospel of three dead persons who were raised to life by the Lord, and, let us hope, to some good purpose. For surely the Lord’s deeds are not merely deeds, but signs. And if they are signs, besides their wonderful character, they have some real significance: and to find out this in regard to such deeds is a somewhat harder task than to read or hear of them. We were listening with wonder, as at the sight of some mighty miracle enacted before our eyes, in the reading of the Gospel, how Lazarus was restored to life. If we turn our thoughts to the still more wonderful works of Christ, every one that believeth riseth again: if we all consider, and understand that more horrifying kind of death, every one who sinneth dies.3 But every man is afraid of the death of the flesh; few, of the death of the soul. In regard to the death of the flesh, which must certainly come some time, all are on their guard against its approach: this is the source of all their labor. Man, destined to die, labors to avert his dying; and yet man, destined to live for ever, labors not to cease from sinning. And when he labors to avoid dying, he labors to no purpose, for its only result will be to put off death for a while, not to escape it; but if he refrain from sinning, his toil will cease, and he shall live for ever. Oh that we could arouse men, and be ourselves aroused along with them, to be as great lovers of the life that abideth, as men are of that which passeth away! What will a man not do who is placed under the peril of death? When the sword was overhanging their heads, men have given up every means of living they had in reserve. Who is there that has not made an immediate surrender of all, to escape being slain? And, after all, he has perhaps been slain. Who is there that, to save his life, has not been willing at once to lose his means of living, and prefer a life of beggary to a speedy death? Who has had it said to him, Be off to sea if you would escape with your life, and has delayed to do so? Who has had it said to him, Set to work if you would preserve your life, and has continued a sluggard? It is but little that God requires of us, that we may live for ever: and we neglect to obey Him. God says not to thee, Lose all you have, that you may live a little time oppressed with toil; but, Give to the poor of what you have, that you may live always exempt from labor. The lovers of this temporal life, which is theirs, neither when, nor as long as they wish, are our accusers; and we accuse not ourselves in turn, so sluggish are we, so lukewarm about obtaining eternal life, which will be ours if we wish it, and will be imperishable when we have it; but this death which we fear, notwithstanding all our reluctance, will yet be ours in possession.
  1. If, then, the Lord in the greatness of His grace and mercy raiseth our souls to life, that we may not die for ever, we may well understand that those three dead persons whom He raised in the body, have some figurative significance of that resurrection of the soul which is effected by faith: He raised up the ruler of the synagogue’s daughter, while still lying in the house;4 He raised up the widow’s young son, while being carried outside the gates of the city;5 and He raised up Lazarus, when four days in the grave. Let each one give heed to his own soul: in sinning he dies: sin is the death of the soul. But sometimes sin is committed only in thought. Thou hast felt delight in what is evil, thou hast assented to its commission thou hast sinned; that assent has slain thee but the death is internal, because the evil thought had not yet ripened into action. The Lord intimated that He would raise such a soul to life, in raising that girl, who had not yet been carried forth to the burial, but was lying dead in the house, as if sin still lay concealed. But if thou hast not only harbored a feeling of delight in evil, but hast also done the evil thing, thou hast, so to speak, carried the dead outside the gate: thou art already without, and being carried to the tomb. Yet such an one also the Lord raised to life. and restored to his widowed mother. If thou hast sinned, repent, and the Lord will raise thee up, and restore thee to thy mother Church. The third example of death is Lazarus. A grievous kind of death it is, and is distinguished as a habit of wickedness. For it is one thing to fall into sin, another to form the habit of sinning. He who falls into sin, and straightway submits to correction, will be speedily restored to life; for he is not yet entangled in the habit, he is not yet laid in the tomb. But he who has become habituated to sin, is buried, and has it properly said of him, “he stinketh;” for his character, like some horrible smell, begins to be of the worst repute. Such are all who are habituated to crime, abandoned in morals. Thou sayest to such an one, Do not so. But when wilt thou be listened to by one on whom the earth is thus heaped, who is breeding corruption, and pressed down with the weight of habit? And yet the power of Christ was not unequal to the task of restoring such an one to life. We know, we have seen, we see every day men changing the very worst of habits, and adopting a better manner of life than that of those who blamed them. Thou detestedst such a man: look at the sister of Lazarus herself (if, indeed, it was she who anointed the Lord’s feet with ointment, and wiped with her hair what she had washed with her tears), who had a better resurrection than her brother; she was delivered from the mighty burden of a sinful character. For she was a notorious sinner; and had it said of her, “Her many sins are forgiven her, for she has loved much.”6 We see many such, we know many: let none despair, but let none presume in himself. Both the one and the other are sinful. Let thine unwillingness to despair take such a turn as to lead thee to make choice of Him in whom alone thou mayest well presume.
  1. So then the Lord also raised Lazarus to life. You have heard what type of character he represents; in other words, what is meant by the resurrection of Lazarus. Let us now, therefore, read over the passage; and as there is much in this lesson clear already, we shall not go into any detailed exposition, so as to take up more thoroughly the necessary points. “Now a certain man was sick, [named] Lazarus, of Bethany, the town of Mary and Martha, his sisters.” In the previous lesson you remember that the Lord escaped from the hands of those who sought to stone Him, and went away beyond Jordan, where Jn baptized.7 When the Lord therefore had taken up His abode there, Lazarus fall sick in Bethany, which was a town lying close to Jerusalem.
  1. “But Mary was she who anointed the Lord with ointment, and wiped His feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was sick. Therefore his sisters sent unto Him, saying.” We now understand whither it was they sent, namely, where the Lord was; for He was away, as you know, beyond the Jordan. They sent messengers to the Lord to tell Him that their brother was ill. He delayed to heal, that He might be able to raise to life. But what was the message sent by his sisters? “Lord, behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick.” They did not say, Come; for the intimation was all that was needed for one who loved. They did not venture to say, Come and heal him: they ventured not to say, Command there, and it shall be done here. And why not so with them, if on these very grounds the centurion’s faith was commended? For he said, “I am not worthy that Thou shouldest enter under my roof; but speak the word only, and my servant shall be healed.”8 No such words said these women, but only, “Lord, behold, he whom Thou lovest is sick.” It is enough that Thou knowest; for Thou art not one that loveth and forsaketh. But says some one, How could a sinner be represented by Lazarus, and be so loved by the Lord? Let him listen to Him, when He says, “I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”9 For had not God loved sinners, He would not have come down from heaven to earth.
  1. “But when Jesus heard [that], He said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified.” Such a glorifying of Himself did not add to His dignity, but benefited us. Hence He says, “is not unto death,” because even that death itself was not unto death, but rather unto the working of a miracle whereby men might be led to faith in Christ, and so escape the real death. And mark how the Lord, as it were indirectly, called Himself God, for the sake of some who deny that the Son is God. For there are heretics who make such a denial, that the Son of God is God. Let them hearken here: “This sickness” He says. “is not unto death, but for the glory of God.” For what glory? For the glory of what God? Hear what follows: “That the Son of God may be glorified.” “This sickness,” therefore, He says, “is not unto death. but for the glory of God, that the Son of God maybe glorified thereby.” By what? By that sickness.
  1. “Now Jesus loved Martha, and her sister Mary, and Lazarus.” The one sick, the others sad, all of them beloved: but He who loved them was both the Saviour of the sick, nay more, the Raiser of the dead and the Comforter of the sad. “When He heard therefore that he was sick, He abode then two days still in the same place.” They sent Him word: He abode where He was: and the time ran on till four days were completed. And not in vain, were it only that perhaps, nay that certainly, even the very number of days has some sacramental significance. “Then after that He saith again to His disciples, Let us go into Judea:” where He had been all but stoned, and from which He had apparently departed for the very purpose to escape being stoned. For as man He departed; but returned as if in forgetfulness of ’all infirmity, to show His power. “Let us go,” He said, “into Judea.”
  1. And now see how the disciples were terrified at His words. “The disciples say unto Him, Master, the Jews of late sought to stone Thee, and goest Thou thither again? Jesus answered, Are there not twelve hours in the day? “What means such. an answer? They said to Him, “The Jews of late sought to stone Thee, and goest Thou thither again” to be stoned? And the Lord, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? if any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world: but if he walk in the night, he stumbleth, because there is no light in him.” He spoke indeed of the day, but to our understanding as if it were still the night. Let us call upon the Day to chase away the night, and illuminate our hearts with the light. For what did the Lord mean? As far as I can judge, and as the height and depth of His meaning breaks into light, He wished to argue down their doubting and unbelief. For they wished by their counsel to keep the Lord from death, who had come to die, to save themselves from death. In a similar way also, in another passage, St. Peter, who loved the Lord, but did not yet fully understand the reason of His coming, was afraid of His dying, and so displeased the Life, to wit, the Lord Himself; for when He was intimating to the disciples what He was about to suffer at Jerusalem at the hands of the Jews, Peter made reply among the rest, and said, “Far be it from Thee, Lord; pity Thyself: this shall not be unto Thee.” And at once the Lord replied, “Get thee behind me, Satan: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” And yet a little before, in confessing the Son of God, he had merited commendation: for he heard the words, “Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.”10 To whom He had said, “Blessed art thou,” He now says, “Get thee behind me, Satan;” because it was not of himself that he was blessed. But of what then? “For flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” See, this is how thou art blessed, not from anything that is thine own, but from that which is mine. Not that I am the Father, but that all things which the Father hath are mine.11 But if his blessedness came from the Lord’s own working, from whose [working] came he to be Satan? He there tells us: for He assigned the reason of such blessedness, when He said, “Flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven:” that is the cause of thy blessedness. But that I said, “Get thee behind me, Satan, hear also its cause. For thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men.” Let no one then flatter himself: in that which is natural to himself he is Satan, in that which is of God he is blessed. For all that is of his own, whence comes it, but from his sin? Put away the sin, which is thine own. Righteousness, He saith, belongeth unto me. For what hast thou that thou didst not receive?12 Accordingly, when men wished to give counsel to God. disciples to their Master, servants to their Lord, patients to their Physician, He reproved them by saying, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not.” Follow me, if ye would not stumble: give not counsel to me, from whom you ought to receive it. To what, then, refer the words, “Are there not twelve hours in the day”? Just that to point Himself out as the day, He made choice of twelve disciples. If I am the day, He says, and you the hours, is it for the hours to give counsel to the day? The day is followed by the hours, not the hours by the day. If these, then, were the hours, what in such a reckoning was Judas? Was he also among the twelve hours? If he was an hour, he had light; and if he had light, how was the Day betrayed by him to death? But the Lord, in so speaking, foresaw, not Judas himself, but his successor. For Judas, when he fell, was succeeded by Matthias, and the duodenary number preserved.13 It was not, then, without a purpose that the Lord made choice of twelve disciples, but to indicate that He Himself is the spiritual Day. Let the hours then attend upon the Day, let them preach the Day, be made known and illuminated by the Day, and by the preaching of the hours may the world believe in the Day. And so in a summary way it was just this that He said: Follow me, if ye would not stumble.

[1] This love is repeatedly emphasized and the Evangelist to designate it uses the Greek verb “agapo”, which indicates self-giving love, unconditional, selfless, and without seeking personal gain.

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Archbishop Francesco Follo

Monsignor Francesco Follo è osservatore permanente della Santa Sede presso l'UNESCO a Parigi.

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